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Taking a Risk

By France Griggs Sloat

Michelle Clayton sits quietly on the carpet, legs crossed, hands folded in her lap. She’s 26 years old and, momentarily, in charge of a group of 6- to 9-year-olds sitting before her. They’re excited. Their morning work is finished, and it’s time for their weekly swimming session at the O’Connor Sports Center pool. They squirm a bit as they anticipate being called, but they wait, all eyes on her.

“OK. If your name has the letter ‘J’ in it, you may go,” she says slowly. A handful jump up and walk—very fast—to get their swimming bags in the other room and then line up by the door. In a few minutes, they’re all gone, led out of the bright, well-lit, clean-carpeted room, and Clayton turns to her red writing folder to grade the children’s work. Light streams in through large picture windows and the glass-paned door.

Clayton is a teacher’s assistant and student intern in the Xavier Montessori Lab School and one of 40 teachers to graduate from Xavier this year with a degree in Montessori education. She joins a continuing legion of teachers certified by the American Montessori Society and trained by the program that founded Montessori teacher education in the United States 40 years ago. Since 1965, the University has graduated about 1,600 Montessori teachers.

In the early 1960s, Montessori-based education was not well known in the U.S. outside of New York, where the American Montessori Society was founded. Martha McDermott was teaching at Ohio’s first Montessori school in Cleveland, while Hilda Rothschild, an early Montessori educator, opened Cincinnati’s first Montessori school. Interest in Montessori education was growing, and they needed teachers to fill the demand. So in 1965, Rothschild convinced Raymond McCoy, then dean of Xavier’s graduate school, to start a Montessori teacher education program. Rothschild brought McDermott to Xavier to teach in the lab school and the graduate program. Since then, Xavier has been at the forefront of Montessori teacher education nationwide.

“Xavier was the foundation of Montessori,” says McDermott. “Hilda Rothschild saw that this training needed a university base and came to Xavier. The University took a risk.”

By 1975, Xavier had secured a grant and, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Public Schools, opened the first public Montessori school in the country. It still operates as Sands Montessori.

Beth Bronsil has taken the program even further since becoming director in 1978. She helped mainstream the Montessori method into the public schools in Cincinnati and across the Midwest. She’s also worked with Taiwan and Korean school officials who regularly send tour groups of teachers to visit the Montessori schools in Cincinnati.

Most people who experience Montessori are smitten by its caring, child-centered approach. Developed by Italian doctor and educator Maria Montessori in the early 1900s, the method focuses on developing the whole child through respect and hands-on experiential learning. She believed children build themselves from their environment, and her work with institutionalized and poor children showed all children can benefit from that approach.

Montessori schools today are marked by their multi-age classrooms, open carpeted spaces and quiet reading areas. “In a traditional school, you sit at a desk and wait for others to finish, but in Montessori, you go on and learn more,” says Clayton, who moved to a traditional school after second grade. “When I was switched, I knew there was a difference, and Montessori offered a lot that I missed.”

Now, 40 years later, Bronsil notes the interest in Montessori education continues unabated. Nationally, there are about 1,000 schools. But she worries about the effect of mandated testing on the quality of Montessori schools. She recently spent time with students from Cincinnati’s Clark Montessori High School and was struck by their maturity and knowledge. Most had been in Montessori since preschool, and it made her think of Rothchild’s vision 40 years ago.

“We’ve been growing these children since they were 3 years old and look at the results,” she says. “Hilda would be so excited to think that children are coming out of Montessori schools that care about the environment, politics, human rights and their own development, and that’s what we don’t want to give up.”

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